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Richard Holbrooke in Asia

While sitting in Istanbul‘s Attaturk International Airport waiting for a flight, I was stunned to hear a BBC announcer report that my colleague and friend U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had just died. I knew that he had been rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a torn aorta. But, despite the seriousness of his condition, it was still unimaginable that he would not recover. After all, had “Holbrooke,” as his friends and colleagues always referred to him, not always prevailed? Had there ever been a challenge too daunting for him?

He was not only a physically tall and imposing man, but he came bathed in the glow of a larger-than-life aura, of tough invincibility. Indeed, he seemed to have an almost autonomic response mechanism that enabled him to galvanize to confront problems. It was with this same can-do attitude that he approached diplomacy. It was hard to imagine him ever responding, “Well, I just don’t think we can succeed here.”

During his long diplomatic career, he was thrown into one difficult situation after another, from Indochina and U.S.-China relations to Bosnia and Afghanistan. Despite the intractability of these challenges, his accomplishments were nonetheless soon so impressive that one was left wondering, was there anything he could not do?

Once he took on a role, he was so personally identified with it that it became inseparable from his own sense of self. He was a man of such towering ego and ambition that it sometimes seemed as if no level of success would ever be enough to slake the inexhaustible thirst for accomplishment that lay at the core of his being. But, this made him a dynamo of energy, as well as an extraordinarily reassuring person to be around.

Everyone knew that once “Holbrooke” allied himself with a goal, he would not let it languish. Indeed, long after everyone else became discouraged and spent, he would still be going full-throttle, reading, meeting, digesting mails and working his cell like the tail-gunner on a bomber under attack. When he was set on getting something done, he could be infuriatingly obsessive compulsive, and totalistic. He did nothing in halves and had a way of sucking all of the air out of the room in the process. But by God, he got things done!

In 2007, when as Chairman of the Board of the Asia Society he and President Vishakha Desai were courting me to join them in running their new Center on U.S.-China Relations, I had an opportunity to watch Holbrooke in high gear. We were sitting in his office one day talking about his aspirations for the new center. I was asking far too many questions—I now realize that this might have suggesting to him that I was wavering in my interest. Whatever the case, without even asking me if I was available, he picked up the phone, ordered a private helicopter, called up Arthur Ross (the philanthropist who had endowed the new center), told him we were coming for lunch and then ordered me to get my effects together. An hour later, we were down at the 33rd St. East River chopper pad leaving for Easthampton, Long Island where, soon enough, we were sitting in Arthur Ross’s living room. I took the job.

The experience left me marveling at Holbrooke’s presumptuousness, decisiveness and brazen sense of self-entitlement. It was as if he—then just a rainmaker at a publishing company—were still in command of a whole military unit with a fleet of aircraft at his disposal. I had also gained a hint of how this singular diplomat had managed to corral the likes Slobodan Miloscevic into signing the Dayton Accords.

Over the next few years, I greatly enjoyed working with him on other projects, even when he would, for example, gratuitously keep me up all night “helping” me edit an article I had just written. Then, there was the time a group of us were flying back together from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Beijing very late one night. Suddenly I found him strolling down the aisle of the Mongolian Airlines plane to announce that he had no China visa. But, he also announced with sovereign conviction, “Don’t worry. I’ll speak to them.” We spent the whole night in the ghostly emptiness of Capitol Airport on the phone to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, which very graciously finally aroused myriad officials from their slumber to oblige “Holbrooke’s” dereliction and get him a visa.

His command performances could be trying. They were about his need to be involved in almost everything, but they were also expressions of his respect and friendship. The truth was that Holbrooke gave as good as he got. He wanted to excel. But, he also wanted his friends, whom he viewed as extensions of himself and his larger fraternity, also to do well. And, his friends were legion! He knew everyone! Many loved him. Some felt left behind each time he stampeded off to some new challenge and an entirely new galaxy of people assembled around him. And then, there were some who just plain hated his guts.

“Holbrooke” was impatient, judgmental and full of bluster. Because he was so smart, he quickly arrived at almost unshakeable conclusions about how something should be done. At such times, he was a difficult man to stand down, and his stubborn, often belligerent, forcefulness turned many people off. I quickly learned that the best way to deal with him was to play along.  The truth was that, more often than not, his strongly held views proved to be absolutely right. Indeed, what I admired most about him was the fact that, although he was not a China specialist, he was nonetheless someone from whom I learned an immense amount about China. Of course, over the years he had had a good deal of experience working with Chinese diplomats, so he understood the DNA at the root of their negotiating systems. But, what really distinguished him from other generalists was his uncanny adeptness at x-raying and understanding how “things worked” in the world at large. This gave him a profound depth of field and a laser-like ability to tease out what was really going on in Chinese affairs.

While always pragmatic in his diplomacy, he never lost touch with his commitment to higher principles. Whether it was his devotion to solving the AIDS crisis, human right issues (with which his wife, Kati Marton, was deeply involved), humanitarian intervention or just intellectual and political discussion, I never felt that he allowed his moral backbone to bend. He was certainly capable of compromise, even of opportunism. But, one never felt during these times of pragmatic compromise that he lost his unerring moral compass.

On one occasion, he called me after he had met with a high-ranking Chinese diplomat, to say that he had had a rather acrimonious conversation with him about some of my writings that had not been well received in Beijing. It would have been easy for Holbrooke to have demurred and distanced himself from me with the disaffected diplomat. But, he did not. I later heard that he had indignantly defended my right to write whatever I wanted. These are the kinds of things that one does not forget.

One quickly grew accustomed to his pugnacious, sometimes even hectoring, manner. He did not like to hear that a problem could not be solved. For him the question was not whether something could be done, but whether it should be done, and how it could be done.  He had a low tolerance for excuses. But, there were few who could be more generous with their time, more solicitous of younger people moving up the ladder of international relations, or more willing to take on difficult challenges. Indeed, behind all mythology about his “toughness,” there was something of a big teddy bear of a man inside, a person also capable of great emotion, devotion and commitment.

We had all become so accustomed to relying on this imposing, defiant man to lead the way that it seemed impossible that last week he would not somehow be able to overcome that one, small, ruptured aorta. To die in the prime of life with so many critical problems in the world still unsolved was so unlike him. When I heard that final, heart rending report on the BBC, solemnly announcing that Ambassador Richard N. Holbrooke had died, it seemed almost unthinkable that this man who had succeeded in fixing so much in the world, should finally have proven mortal. 

Orville Schell is the former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He was recently appointed by the Asia Society as the Arthur Ross Director to set up its new Center on US China Relations in New York City.

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